Department of Disbelief: Things We Don’t See We Don’t Take Seriously – Such as MRSA Bacteria. But A New Technology Can Help Solve That

The well-known phrase “seeing is believing,” i.e., only physical or concrete evidence is convincing, is more than just a 17th C proverb: scientific research tells us it’s true. What’s more, it’s corollary, “not seeing is not believing,” is apparently also true. In fact, Israeli-American psychologist Daniel Kahnemen won the 2002 Nobel Prize in economic sciences for proving just that: we decide what’s important based on what comes to mind; and what comes to mind is vivid visual imagery – think 9/11 imagery – and not (boring) data.

This two-minute video nicely illustrates the point by posing the question: Which should we be more afraid of, sharks or horses?

This matters because it’s not just you and me who think this way; we all do, including government policy makers. As the video points out, more money is allocated for fighting terrorism than cancer even though cancer kills 2,000 times as many people. Similarly, with respect to infectious disease, there was a shift of tens of millions of dollars of federal research money since 2001 away from pathogens that cause major public health problems to obscure germs that the government fears might be used in a bioterrorist attack. Yet, conservative estimates have MRSA alone killing over 11,000 Americans every year and seriously injuring over 80,000 more – and this sentence is Exhibit A for the kind of rational data that doesn’t convince people of anything.

Conventional wisdom holds that the cure for this faulty way of thinking – this cognitive disability we all share — is to be aware of it and to make a concerted effort to rely on the evidence instead of impressionable events. (Good luck with that.)

Manu Prakash and Foldscope

Manu Prakash and Foldscope

Which brings us to Stanford University biophysicist Manu Prakash and his effort to bring the miniscule world of microorganisms – he calls it the microcosmos – to the masses. He wants us to be able to see the microcosmos just as we see the everyday things in the world we inhabit: to see bacteria as easy as we see a building.

To do this he invented the Foldscope, a microscope made almost entirely from a sheet of paper, plus a tiny lens, and is the size of a large bookmark. It comes in a kit and performs most of the functions of a high-school lab microscope. He plans to make the Foldscope available for purchase by the summer – for the cost of $1.00!

In a recent interview with The New Yorker, Prakash explained his thinking: “It’s not good enough to read about [the microcosmos] … You have to experience it …Unless you get people curious about the small-scale world, it’s very hard to change mind-sets about diseases [and] … There’s a very deep connection between science education and global health.” Experience what you see through Foldscope:

Aside from having your own Foldscope, you’d have them available in hospitals, doctor’s offices, health clinics, schools, libraries, and so on, so everyone could experience the microcosmos and thus be persuaded it’s real. This is how you change behavior. Anyone going to any health facility, and this would include staff, could be asked to scrape their hands and see what’s there. This, for example, would be a way to overcome the notoriously difficult problem of getting hospital staff to comply with their own hand-washing rules.

The Foldscope (or perhaps something similar as a Google Glass app) is the portal into the microcosmos, a world teeming with “many very little living animalcules, very prettily a-moving … which bent their bodies into curves.” Those were the words of the inventor of the microscope, Dutch scientist Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, describing what he saw the first time he scraped off some of his own dental plaque and put it under his microscope.

Interestingly, when Leeuwenhoek announced his discovery of the microcosmos, few of his contemporaries were willing to believe it even existed. That was 1683. According to the Pulitzer Prize-winning research of Daniel Kahneman, when it comes to the microcosmos, for all practical purposes, some of us might not have moved too much beyond that: “[T]he world in our heads is not a precise replica of reality,” he says.

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